Rod Phillips resigns from Doug Ford’s cabinet, won’t seek re-election
In a major pre-election setback for Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips is retiring from politics.
Phillips, a key cabinet minister who has represented Ajax since 2018, announced Friday he would not be running in the June 2 election.
“I have spoken with Premier Ford and with Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario PC Party, to inform them of my decision not to seek re-election and to step down next month as the MPP for Ajax,” Phillips, 56, said in a written statement.
“This will allow the premier to appoint a successor to continue the important work of the Ministry of Long-Term Care. It also ensures that the PC Party has the time needed to nominate a candidate in Ajax and prepare for the provincial election,” he said.
“I have always considered public service a privilege and it has been an honour to serve as the MPP for Ajax and in three cabinet portfolios. That said, my professional life has been spent in the business world and I look forward to returning to the private sector.”
His surprise departure is a political blow to Ford, coming just 20 weeks before what public opinion polls suggest could be a close election.
On Twitter, the premier thanked Phillips “for his tireless work representing the people of Ajax and advancing important and necessary improvements in Ontario’s long-term care system.”
“I want to wish him and Lydia the very best in their next chapter. I have no doubt there are great things for Rod ahead,” said Ford, who on Friday night appointed Paul Calandra, minister of legislative affairs and government house leader, to also be long-term care minister.
For his part, Phillips praised the premier’s “strong leadership … through what is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of our lifetimes, the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“He has always put first what is best for the people of Ontario. I remain confident Ontarians will re-elect his government in the upcoming election,” he said.
Since taking over the embattled Ministry of Long-Term Care last June, Phillips has been credited for helping to improve Ontario’s pandemic-ravaged nursing homes, which suffered greatly in the first waves of COVID-19. But about half of all nursing homes are currently battling outbreaks as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads.
Along with joining ministry inspectors on surprise spot-checks of homes, he implemented a mandatory vaccination policy for all staff and ensured hefty increases to operating budgets and infrastructure investments in an area long neglected by successive governments of all political stripes.
“Our work together has been the most meaningful in my time as a minister of the Crown,” Phillips said of the long-term care sector.
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“Together we have protected residents with the toughest legislation and best enforcement in the country, moved ahead with the largest long-term care building program ever in Canada and invested in training and hiring tens of thousands of new, front line health care staff. All while continuing to do everything possible to vaccinate and protect residents and staff through this latest wave of the global pandemic.”
But NDP MPP Sara Singh (Brampton Centre) said Phillips’s resignation suggests Ford’s government is in disarray.
“Outbreaks and staff shortages are surging in long-term care homes again, leaving residents at risk. This is not the first time the government has changed long-term care ministers when residents were in the middle of a crisis,” said Singh, referring to former minister Merrilee Fullerton.
Liberal Steven Del Duca said the “abrupt departure … while more than half of Ontario’s nursing homes have COVID outbreaks is a total abdication of leadership and a sign of pure chaos in Ford’s Conservative party.”
“Doug Ford’s incompetence has turned a health crisis into a crisis of leadership,” said Del Duca, who also thanked the minister “for his years of public service.”
Phillips made headlines in December 2020 when he went on vacation to the Caribbean island of St. Barts at a time when the federal government was urging Canadians to avoid non-essential travel.
Even though the premier’s office was aware of the Christmas trip, he resigned as finance minister upon his return to spare Ford further political embarrassment.
But his absence from the executive council coincided with some of the Tories’ most chaotic months of the pandemic, culminating in a marathon two-day cabinet meeting last April when ministers decided to impose police spot checks and close playgrounds to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Those controversial moves were abandoned the next day amid a massive outcry from Ontarians and directly contributed to a displeased Ford shuffling his cabinet weeks later and handing Phillips the challenging long-term care file.
A successful business leader before entering elected politics, Phillips served as chair of Postmedia, parent company of the National Post and the Toronto Sun, and in 2011 was appointed president and CEO of Ontario Lottery and Gaming by Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
In 2014, he succeeded Toronto Mayor John Tory as chair of the non-partisan CivicAction urban affairs organization. He also served as mayor Mel Lastman’s chief of staff after the 1998 amalgamation of the old city of Toronto with North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, York and East York.
Long mentioned as a potential successor to Ford as Progressive Conservative leader, Phillips’s retirement jolts the political landscape as ministers begin jockeying for positioning in a future leadership contest.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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